Feminism in Pakistan: Just an elitist movement?

Written for Viewpoint.

When I was contacted to write on this topic, my gut reaction was to agree with the claim that the feminist movement in Pakistan is elitist. But upon pondering about this, I realized I was indulging in my confirmation bias. This claim, which is common and much talked about, and mostly used as an excuse to dismiss the existence of feminism in Pakistan, is problematic on many levels.

Firstly, it assumes a feminist movement exists, but I, and many other feminists, would argue that there is no movement. Feminism exists. Pakistani feminists exist. Women who don’t identify as feminists but are undoubtedly changing the future for Pakistani women exist. Organizations, specifically NGOs, which advocate feminism exist, but one cannot classify this as a movement per se.

Furthermore, some of our most famous feminist icons are not elite. Mukhtaran Mai, who is known locally as well as internationally, cannot be considered elite. She suffered at the hands of a richer and more powerful caste who gang raped her in order to avenge their honour. Now, years later, she has become a powerful figure who is changing the very fabric of Pakistani society for women by educating girls for free; providing needy women shelter which includes legal, medical and psychological support; and has created a women’s resource centre in Mianwali which helps female violence victims and provides them emergency rescue services. Her advocacy for women’s rights has led to much awareness and has motivated many to support her causes.

Another feminist icon, one who is in the news these days, is Malala Yousafzai. Malala’s feminist cause cannot be defined as elitist. Is this because she doesn’t belong to an elite background? Shall we stop to pause and think about whether a feminist’s background colours our own views about their feminism? I say this as a privileged citizen of this land who is often labeled elite or elitist because of my background.

My views have been dismissed by some as invalid because I speak English and am not a working class woman. I don’t pretend I know what life is like for anyone other than myself, nor should my views or opinions be dismissed for this reason. Why can’t I also believe that the world needs to become a much better place for women than it currently is? And why is not valid simply because I am not living in a village?

Does being able to live a feminist life or actively take part in feminist activism rely on privilege or at least the support of the men in one’s family? Why do we so conveniently forget that women are considered property in Pakistan regardless of their class? We, as women, do not belong to ourselves. We belong to our men and this is state sanctioned. My national identification card as well as my passport requires that I identify as my father’s daughter instead of my mother’s. I legally do not even have the option to identify as my mother’s daughter in legal documentation. If I choose to marry, my ownership will be transferred from my father to my husband. The state requires I register this under the law but men are not required to identify their wives as their co owners on paper.

I also happen to live in a country where any of my male “owners” can kill me and get away with it. We live in a land where honour killings are rampant and socially sanctioned. The key to my liberation is male support regardless of my class. I say this as someone whose mother’s background is that of a wealthy but highly patriarchal family and whose father’s is entirely feminist. In my mother’s family, women are secondary to men and the older women have been too well indoctrinated by patriarchal norms to even consider themselves equals. In my paternal family, this topic isn’t even debated for none of the men consider themselves superior to the women.

I’ve chosen to share this comparison between my maternal and paternal family to illustrate a point. Not all wealthy or elite people support feminism, but some do. None of the women of my mother’s generation from her family are interested in feminism. She married into a family whose values she shared and adopted. She also had an immense amount of support from her in laws. Had she not had it, I do not believe she would have become a feminist.

When people say the feminist movement is elitist, they mostly focus on groups like Women Action Forum, which, until recently, were dominated by elite women. These were the original feminists from the 1980s who stood up to Zia’s tyranny. They got up and fought when others were too scared. They risked their lives to make this country a better place for all women, not just themselves. They fought hard. They wanted their daughters to have better options than they did.

Why do we forget that when WAF was formed, time was of the essence? Young girls and women were on death row awaiting executions for being raped. No one had time to sit down and formulate theory. They were purely activist and not academic. The 1980s was a decade where feminism the world over was facing much backlash and a new wave of feminism, the third wave, was cropping up. Before the third wave, intersectionality was not commonly acknowledged. Today, we are aware of the fact that people can face multiple oppressions based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and class etc. Class matters and no can deny that. Women from minority backgrounds face much more discrimination than women from my own Punjabi background. Women from religious minority groups not only share the burden of being a female, but also that of a minority in a land where too many question their loyalty to their country based on their faith. In essence, there is no denying that these women face a double or multiple oppressions. Yet, at the same time, all women do belong to the class of woman, which has historically been oppressed by the class of men. So even though much diversity and degrees of privilege may vary amongst women, we all have one shared major oppression: patriarchy.

As a young feminist who was inspired by my mother’s generation of women, I often thank them now. I fought them for years, declared them elitist, only to live and learn. I realized that holding them accountable for not being perfect and for simply being a product of their times, I was not getting on board. In other words, I was simply whining instead of making a change. And frankly, not enough elite women are feminists. They, who have the power to make a difference and change, are silent on everyone’s behalf. They are comfortable in their own privilege and do not feel the need to advocate on behalf of all women.

Never before have the women of our country, especially young women and girls, been more aware of the fact that they are considered property. And never before have they been so willing to stand up for their rights. They want freedom, the right to be educated, to choose who they marry and when. They are aware of their rights because of the feminists who came before them. The Pakistani state has consistently betrayed and oppressed women. It is the feminists who have rescued us.

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DO NOT read this blog post

I just want to start by saying that if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like what I have to say, then what you are doing here, on my blog? If you have issues with the way I write or what I address, then please it’s best for you to leave now. If you’d like to read on, then I wonder why you’re making the effort to choose to be offended. Perhaps you, like most Pakistanis, suffer from a severe persecution complex but are in deep denial of it (don’t know what that is? Click here!). I don’t know and I don’t care. What I do care about is that there are people who choose to come read me, make a big issue about what I say, and then cry about it. Funny thing is, these are the same people who’ll insist Rushdie did no wrong and that only idiots make a big deal out of not much. The irony is amazing!

I have a brilliant idea for you all. DON’T. READ. THIS. BLOG. Go here instead. It’s more up your alley.

You still here? Not willing to leave? Ok then. I won’t tell you what this blog is about. I’ll tell you about what it’s not. I’ve recently decided there are certain topics I should not write about because they have to do with the elite. And since we know the elite are our saviours and champions, I must not have anything but praise for them.

So the elite are our champions, I urge you: don’t buy this propaganda against them that circulates the internet from bitter, jealous, insecure fools. They’re the kind of fools who call them liberal fascists and spread lies to further their interests.

For example: no privileged Pakistani has ever actually killed someone while drunk driving. That rumour stems from the jealous middle classes who can’t afford champagne. I mean come on! Drunk driving hasn’t killed ANYONE. If it did, wouldn’t many people be serving time in jail? It certainly isn’t easy to get out of convictions if you’re rich. Not at all.

“Haan mein nay mara tha! I did his family a favour. They’ve probably never seen so much money!” has never been said with glee. Those words have never been uttered. No one is that insensitive. And, like I said, NO ONE has ever run over a sleeping worker on the side of the road and ended his life. No one. That’s all lies and propaganda. I mean they’re rich enough to have drivers to drive them. They don’t need to get behind the wheel while judgement is impaired. No one ever tempted to do that. Ever. Ever. Ever.

Similarly, no rich, self identified liberal Pakistani has ever given a bribe or received one. They are immune to the epidemic the rest of the society suffers from, our lords, champions and saviours! For example, they have never, ever, ever bribed powerful people in the industry they are associated with. They have never done any judges any favours. They have never made promises to any politicians. They certainly haven’t ever made a powerful network with the army wallahs (those scums!). They’re lily white. Don’t you ever forget that.

The elite are also the biggest feminists in Pakistan. If it weren’t for them, women would have no rights. We’d be sitting in our chaadar and char diwaari. We owe them everything. Don’t believe me? Just see how wonderfully they treat their women. No elite man cheats on his wife openly. No elite uncles molest girls or sexually exploits 18 year olds. No elite man beats his wife and they certainly don’t slap women across the face when drunk at parties. No elite man date rapes anyone. No elite man ever emotionally devastates a woman. No elite gay man has ever married a young girl & turned her into a baby machine for himself. No elite man pressures his daughter to marry someone to further his business interests. No elite man denies his daughter her right to education and gets her married instead. No elite families give grand dowries. No elite people truly think women are secondary to men. That’s why elite women have such high divorce rates: when they do accidentally marry an idiot (always “middle class”), rest assured NO ONE in their families gives a hard time or tells her to make it work. Rest assured they NEVER blame the woman. Rest assured they are nothing but an incredible support system. No elite mother has ever said: “deal with it beti, your father did all this to me too!” to her daughter and sent her back to beaten. That has never, ever happened. All elite treat women wonderfully. That’s why the elite women are so well adjusted and so wise. Anyone who says otherwise is a… yes, say it with me: jealous and insecure fool!

The elite are also the most hamdard people in Pakistan. They feel everyone’s pain on a profound level. They truly understand the poor people’s suffering. They cry for them. They treat them better than anyone in this society. Their servants have servants! Go to the back of any elite house and you’ll see a palatial area, fully air conditioned, nothing squalid or dirty. Their servants live like kings which is why no servant has ever stolen or gone as far as murdered their benevolent employees. After all, elite boys don’t get drunk, line up servants against a wall and throw water balloons at them. That has never happened.

Did you know that the money the elite spend on their grand weddings is nothing compared to how much charity they give? Also, these weddings aren’t grand displays of wealth at all. We stupidly think so because we’re too poor to know any better. We’re also wrong to believe that these weddings puts pressure on all other classes to do the same. We’re totally wrong in thinking that if these events were less ostentatious, others may not feel so pressured. When the other classes choose to sacrifice their daughter’s education in order to give her a grand wedding, then they are the idiots for making the wrong choice. Elitism had nothing to do with it.

Our elite are NOT hypocrites. No, not at all. They praise me for criticising everyone they don’t like, but lose it when I comment on elitism. You see, dear readers, I’m the one who doesn’t know any better. I’m wrong. I’m just plain insane about this but not much else.